Samsung and Hulu are giving up on 360-degree video, but VR producers have other plans
360-degree video drove early VR headset adoption. Now some companies are shutting down their VR video apps.
Samsung is done with VR video: The company will remove its Samsung XR app, which aggregated 360-degree videos from publishers like CNN and The New York Times, from VR app stores Tuesday. The removal comes a week after Facebook stopped selling its 360-degree-video optimized Oculus Go headset, and a few weeks after Hulu announced that it would shutter its own VR video app on most platforms.
This retreat may suggest that 360-degree video is dead, but Colum Slevin, Facebook's director of AR/VR media, isn't quite ready to say goodbye just yet. "We're still very much in the business of helping 360 creators," he told Protocol last week.
Slevin admitted that there is a clear pull toward more immersive content that goes beyond 360-degree video. "The future of VR is about delivering on the actual promise of VR," he said, referencing immersion and interactivity, as well as the ability to actually lean or step into an experience, something that is known in the industry as 6DOF, short for six degrees of freedom. "The future is 6DOF," Slevin said.
Samsung is in many ways emblematic of the evolution of the VR industry. The consumer electronics giant released the very first mass-market VR headset that combined a simple viewer with a mobile phone, the Samsung Gear VR, in 2015. The company also built out its own VR video service, first branded Milk VR and eventually renamed to Samsung XR, with the goal of combining 360-degree videos from professional publishers and amateurs alike in a YouTube-like environment. And when the industry moved from lower-end phone-based VR goggles to PC VR, Samsung released a number of gaming-ready VR headsets under the Samsung Odyssey brand.
More recently, Samsung has been retreating from VR. The company officially stopped selling Gear VR last year. Its HMD Odyssey headsets are sold out, and the decision to sunset the Samsung XR app signaled that the company is taking a break from the medium altogether. "After years of industry innovation in the immersive content space, Samsung XR is ending service across the web, mobile app and VR headset platforms," a spokesperson told Protocol via email. "We continue to explore the potential of other exciting applications of mobile AR and volumetrics technologies."
While Samsung has been getting out of the VR business, Facebook has doubled down with the release of the gaming-focused Oculus Quest headset, which seems to be resonating with consumers: Quest owners spent more than $100 million on VR content since the release of the headset in May 2019. Gaming in particular has become so successful on the platform that Facebook has been snapping up VR game studios left and right, including Lone Echo maker Ready at Dawn Studios last week. Still, even Quest gamers watch videos on their headsets. "Users are not monoliths," said Slevin, adding that Facebook has seen video viewing remain "a steady overall percentage" of headset usage.
360-degree video pioneer Felix & Paul Studios has seen similar trends. "I guess gamers are people, too," joked co-founder and Creative Director Paul Raphaël. The studio, whose past VR productions include a documentary about the Obama White House, a nighttime tour of Detroit narrated by Eminem, and multiple Cirque du Soleil films, has seen solid usage on the Quest and is about to rerelease its entire catalog as part of a dedicated app for the headset. "The Quest is just as good if not better than the Go at playing 360-video content," Raphael said.
Baobab Studios CEO Maureen Fan also argued that lower-end headsets will see continued usage for some time to come. "There are still millions upon millions of people who are interested in VR but don't have access or can't afford to buy a top-of-the-line headset," Fan said. "360 content still has a place," she said, arguing that it was especially valuable in nursing homes, schools and other environments that may not be suited for high-end VR.
Baobab is known for Pixar-quality animated VR films, and the studio has gradually added more interactivity and immersion to its projects, which includes using hand controllers and other high-end VR technology. "At the same time, we want to tell great stories and have as many people experience them as possible," Fan said. "We are always going to look for ways to give a version of that story to as many people as possible, whether that is 360, interactive VR or more-traditional viewing experiences."
Raphael also argued that not every story may lend itself to interactivity and lean-in immersion. "I believe cinematic VR has a long and exciting road ahead," he said. "It is hard to imagine everyone wanting their immersive storytelling to be interactive." Still, Felix & Paul Studios is going with the times and about to announce its first-ever VR project with six degrees of freedom soon, according to Raphael.
Ultimately, high-end immersion and interactivity are just different ways to tell stories, argued Slevin, who compared this moment of transition from early VR headsets like the Oculus Go to the Quest to the emergence of digital filmmaking technologies: "It all comes down to how compelling the content is."
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